We all feel nervous from time to time, it’s part of life and something that happens to every rider at some point in their lives, and when you consider the size of the ‘average’ horse it’s easy to understand why we sometimes let our negative thoughts run away with us. Then of course there are those bad riding experiences that we’ve all had, whether it’s a horse that constantly misbehaves or the time you fell off. Whatever it is it can come back to haunt you if you don’t address it and learn to overcome it.
While it might seem like your mind and fears go into overdrive without any warning there are things that you can do to stop them from getting the better of you. After all, being nervous or anxious isn’t always a bad thing but when it stops you from doing something you really enjoy doing it’s time to face up to them. This is why I decided to write this article, I’ve helped hundreds (if not thousands) of riders overcome and conquer their nerves, and wanted to share with you some of the things that really make a difference.
What causes you to become nervous
The first step towards combatting your nerves is to realize what is causing them in the first place. I know you’re probably thinking that it’s horseback riding that’s making you nervous but when you really consider what it is that you are nervous about you’ll realize that there are one or two aspects that you’re anxious about. For example, do you get nervous when you ride alone, does your stomach get knotted up when it’s time to practice your jumping, or are you constantly worried you’ll fall off?
Once you know what it is that you’re nervous about you’re halfway there!
Why is it important to overcome your nerves when horseback riding?
You might think that it doesn’t matter if you’re nervous while horseback riding but believe me it will have a negative impact on your horse too. No matter how much you think you’re hiding your fears your horse will know.
If you’re nervous you’ll probably tense up, hold your breath, tip forward, and even grip more with your legs which your horse will definitely be able to feel. Some horses will be sympathetic to this and will be kind and gentle (and even forgiving) towards you but others will see it as an excuse to play up, which will obviously make you more nervous.
Want to know more about how your posture affects the horse? Common mistakes riders make.
What can you do to overcome your horseback riding nerves?
Nerves are our body’s way of getting us ready (in a physiological way) to deal with a threat that it believes is imminent. Essentially your nerves are preparing you to either fight or run away (known as fight or flight) which is great if you really are facing danger but not so good if you’re not.
The trouble is if there’s no real threat and you give into those fears you’re subconsciously reinforcing them which is why you need to learn to confront those fears and overcome your nerves. Below are 20 things that you can actively do to help you relax when you’re in the saddle. While we’re all different and they won’t all work for you I have used every single one of them to help my riders overcome their nerves.
1) Choose a quiet horse
One of the best ways of reducing your anxiety and nerves while horseback riding is to choose a quiet horse, one that won’t spook easily and has a calm disposition. If you are a beginner, it is best to avoid horses that are high-spirited or have a lot of energy. Your riding instructor will be able to help you choose a suitable horse.
Not sure which breeds are most suitable? Top 10 friendliest breeds.
2) Get to know your horse
Once you’ve found a suitable horse it’s important to get to know them before you jump on and start riding. Spend some time grooming them, talking to them, and getting them used to your presence. This will help you to build a bond with the horse and make them more comfortable around you, and you more comfortable around them.
3) Have regular lessons
Regardless of whether you’re a seasoned pro or a total beginner, it’s always a good idea to have riding lessons with an experienced (and ideally qualified) instructor. Not only will they teach you the basics and help to improve your technique but they’ll also give you advice on how to reduce your anxiety while riding.
4) Find a good riding instructor
The job of a riding instructor goes way beyond teaching you the basics of riding a horse. A good instructor will push you to better yourself, they’ll work with you at your pace. That said though you shouldn’t choose a riding instructor solely based on their ability, it’s important that you get on with them and feel you can talk to them if you’re not happy about something.
A good riding instructor will push you past your comfort zone but not past your ability.
5) Start with small rides
Another way to reduce anxiety while horseback riding is to go on short rides to start with, rather than long trail rides. Stick to shorter rides until you feel more comfortable and confident on the horse. Starting with small rides around the arena or paddock will help you get used to being on the horse and help the horse get used to having you on its back.
6) Take deep breaths
When you’re feeling nervous or anxious your breathing becomes faster and you take shorter breaths which will affect how relaxed you are as well as how tense your body is. I know you’re probably thinking why does that matter but it will subtly change your posture in the saddle which will have a bearing on your horse. You’ll also be tenser which will often result in you sitting more rigidly and holding the reins tighter, again something that your horse will pick up on.
This is why it’s always a good idea to try and take deep breaths when you’re feeling anxious. Not only will it slow your heart rate and calm your nerves but it’ll also give you a more relaxed posture in the saddle too.
One of the best techniques I use for this is called elephant breathing which involves taking a deep breath while repeating the word elephant in your head twice. Then hold your breath while saying elephant once before slowly breathing out, repeating elephant three times. Do this for one minute and you’ll feel a lot better.
7) Focus on your posture
Posture can play a crucial role in how relaxed and calm you feel when you’re horseback riding which is why it’s important you’re sitting properly in the saddle. If you’re tense you’re more likely to adopt the fetal position (where you tip forward and hunch over your horse’s neck) which will actually increase the chances of you falling off.
Instead, try and be aware of your posture, you should be sitting up straight with your shoulders back, your head facing forward and your feet comfortably in the stirrups. This will help you to feel more balanced and in control while you’re riding.
8) Relax your grip
Just as is the case with your posture, when you’re nervous you’re more likely to grip in a subconscious effort to stay in the saddle. This often means you’re holding onto the reins more tightly as well as gripping with your legs more. Neither of these things will help you stay to the horse and are more likely to have the opposite effect.
Gripping the reis will mean that you’re all pulling on the horse’s mouth too, making it uncomfortable for him and resulting in him resisting you and your aids. Likewise gripping with your legs will confuse the horse as he won’t know if you’re asking him to go or if you want him to stop. It’ll also unbalance you when you’re riding and make it harder for you to maintain the correct riding position, especially at paces faster than a walk.
9) Improve your fitness
When I was younger I went through a period of time when I didn’t want to ride, not because I didn’t enjoy it but because my nerves had gotten the better of me. The problem was I didn’t know what was causing this until my instructor suggested I did a few exercises out of the saddle. Understandably I was skeptical but did them anyway, after all, I was willing to try anything. The exercises were only gentle stretches but what was really incredible was that they actually worked!
If you’re wondering why they worked it was because I was able to be more relaxed in the saddle, I wasn’t getting as tired, and was able to let my core muscle support me rather than having to hold myself up. This meant that I was able to keep my posture without bouncing around which in turn meant that I didn’t constantly feel as if I was about to fall.
In all walks of life, not just horseback riding, we underestimate the psychological effect our fitness can have on us.
Not sure which exercises you should be doing? Core exercises every equestrian should be doing.
10) Practice in an enclosed area
While there is a lot to be said for practicing in an open field without any obstacles it’s not a good idea to do this if you’re nervous. Instead using an arena or small pen to practice in will allow you to focus on getting comfortable with the horse without worrying that they might bolt.
If you don’t have an enclosed area you can practice in ask your instructor if they can put you on a lunge line instead. This will mean that your instructor will have full control over the horse and you can just focus on maintaining your balance and learning to understand the horse.
11) Be patient and don‘t rush
Unless you’re preparing for a competition or event then what’s the hurry? Remember that this is something you’ve chosen to do and that it will take as long as it takes. Putting extra pressure on yourself to overcome your nerves in a set period of time will have the opposite effect and will only add to your anxiety.
Remember we’re all different and it takes as long as it takes. Of course, there will be setbacks along the way but overcoming them will boost your confidence, both in and out of the saddle.
12) Find the right discipline
Horseback riding is a very broad term that covers a huge array of disciplines and if you are nervous then why not try a different discipline? I taught a girl once who loved riding until I started her jumping, suddenly she started coming up with all sorts of excuses why she couldn’t ride that day, or just didn’t show up for lessons. In the end, I spoke to her parents who said she got really nervous every time she thought about jumping. I suggested she tried Western riding instead and within a few months, she’d decided to enter her first Western Pleasure competition. And guess what she won!!
13) Wear comfortable clothing
You might not realize it but the clothing you wear will play a bigger role in how relaxed or anxious you feel when horseback riding. Wearing constricting or uncomfortable clothing will only make you feel more on edge and anxious. Instead opt for close-fitting clothes that allow you to move more freely, although you should avoid wearing clothes that make a lot of noise (such as a shell suit) as they could make your horse anxious.
14) Use the correct safety equipment
Not only will using the right safety equipment help to protect you if the worst happens but it’ll also help you to feel more secure and reduce your anxiety.
Many countries have their own safety standards but the latest international standards are Kitemark PAS015, Kitemark VG1, and ASTM).
Want to know more about riding helmets and what the law is in your country? What the law says about riding helmets.
Nobody wants to fall off (or even likes to think they might do), but wearing a body protector and/or an air vest will help to protect you if this does happen which will do a lot to help reduce your anxiety when horseback riding. I never ride without one and feel more relaxed and comfortable wearing it than I ever did without one.
Not sure how protectors and air vests can help keep you safe? The benefits of wearing a body protector.
Your footwear probably won’t do a lot to relax you while you are horseback riding but it will help to keep you safe in the saddle which will, hopefully, help to reassure you. You don’t need to use proper riding boots as long as your footwear has a smooth sole and small heel.
Not all footwear is suitable for horseback riding: Why you shouldn’t ride in sneakers.
You might not think that wearing horseback riding gloves will make a difference to your nerves but it can have more of an effect than you realize. To start with they’ll stop your hands from hurting if your horse is headstrong, but they’ll also give you a better grip on the reins. Something that will, in turn, give you better control over the horse and therefore indirectly reduce your anxiety.
Not confident riding gloves will help? The pros and cons of horseback riding with gloves.
15) Learn how to fall properly
There’s no denying that horses are big animals and it can be scary to fall off but if you learn how to fall properly then you’ll reduce the chances of being injured which is what most people (understandably) are frightened of.
There are courses you can take that teach you how to fall properly (such as this one from Landsafe) or, if you prefer to watch videos there are plenty on YouTube. I had a look and found this one to be the most helpful:
16) Warm up before riding (and cool down after)
You might not think that warming up before riding or cooling down after would make a difference to your nerves but it’s more about having a positive attitude before riding as well as recovering quickly (without aches and sore muscles) after riding.
Just like any other physical activity, it’s important to warm up before going for a ride. A simple warm-up routine could include walking or jogging around the arena, doing some gentle stretches, or taking the horse for a short walk. Warming up will help prepare your body for the ride ahead and reduce your risk of injury.
After your ride, take some time to cool down in order to prevent stiffness and muscle soreness. Light stretching exercises are ideal but your horse would also benefit from cooling down too so why not take him for a gentle walk around, allowing him to graze when he wants to?
17) Get plenty of sleep before riding
A good night’s sleep will solve (and prevent) so many problems and horseback riding nerves is one of those problems. I’m not saying that if you have a good night’s sleep you won’t have any nerves at all but it will make more of a difference than you realize.
Not only will it help your body recover from the previous day but it’ll also help you to prepare for the next day. Getting enough sleep will also help to improve your focus, concentration, and even your alertness, all of which will help relax and calm you when you’re horseback riding.
18) Eat a healthy meal before riding
Just like getting enough sleep, having a proper meal will help you in ways you probably won’t realize. Eating a nutritious meal will sustain your energy levels throughout your ride, helping you stay focused and reducing fatigue. Fuelling your body with healthy foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean protein (such as chicken or fish) will all help.
19) Learn to recognize your triggers
Recognizing what causes you to get anxious and nervous is a big step towards overcoming it, regardless of what the cause is. We’re all different and will have different triggers but common signs you’re getting anxious are:
- Rapid breathing
- Increased heart rate
- Shaky legs
- Light headed
- Butterflies in stomach
- Needing the bathroom a lot
- Feeling weak or tired
- Difficulty concentrating or focusing
If you notice these early triggers you can deal with them before they overwhelm you. I always find doing the elephant breathing I mentioned helps me but you may find that something like listening to music or grooming your horse helps you. Whatever helps, make sure you do it when you notice these early triggers.
20) Don’t be afraid to ask for help
One of the hardest things to do when you’re nervous and anxious is to ask for help but it can also be the most rewarding when you do it. Nobody knows everything, just as nobody can overcome everything on their own, sometimes you need to ask for help, even the world’s most confident riders have all asked for help at some point in their lives.
I hope you found this article helpful. If you did I’d be grateful if you could share it please as it would really help me.
Over the years I have tried hundreds of different horsey products, from various blankets and halters to different treats. Some I’ve loved, others I’ve hated but I thought I’d share with you my top all-time favorite products, the ones I never leave the yard without. I’ve included links to the products (which are in no particular order) that I really think are great.
- Mane ’n Tail Detangler – Even if you never show your horse you’ll need to detangle his tail from time to time (and possibly his mane too) which is always a challenging chore! I’ve found that if I run a little bit of detangler through my horse’s tails every few days it stops them from getting matted up and makes combing them easy, even if they’re coated in mud. I don’t know if I should admit to this or not but it also works wonders on my hair.
- TAKEKIT Pro clippers – Over the years I’ve tried a lot of different clippers and while some were obviously better than others I found these to be by far the best. They are heavier than a lot of other clippers but for me, that’s a good thing, it makes them feel more sturdy and hardwearing. On top of that they have a range of speeds so are just as good for clipping your horse’s back as they are his face. I also like the fact that they come in a handy carry case but that’s not for everybody. The company that makes them is super good and incredibly helpful too, a real bonus these days. The only thing I wasn’t keen on was the fact that it doesn’t come with any oil, but that’s not a major problem as it’s not difficult to buy lubricant.
- Shire’s ball feeder – There are so many boredom buster toys out there but I like to use these every day, regardless of whether or not my horses are bored. I find that it helps to encourage my horses to problem solve by rewarding them with treats (or pieces of fruit) but it also mimics their natural grazing behavior which helps to keep them calm and de-stressed.
- Horse safe mirror – This is a strange one that many people are surprised about but I like to put horse safe mirrors in the trailers as well as in the quarantine stalls. It helps to prevent the feeling of isolation by giving the impression of other horses being around. Being herd animals horses can get extremely stressed when they feel that they’re on their own but with these stick-on mirrors, they believe that at least one other horse is with them.
- Rectal thermometer – I know this isn’t glamourous at all but it’s vital for your horse’s well-being to be able to check their temperature and a rectal thermometer is the easiest way of doing this which is why I’ve added it to the list.
I’ve also put together a few shopping lists of essential items that I’ve found helpful over the years. I’ve broken the lists down into different categories rather than put everything in one massive list 😉